What colour is the BBC?

"Hideously white" may not be entirely fair. But it still needs to change

In the late 1980s, when I was in charge of BBC News and Current Affairs, I attended my first and only racial- awareness seminar.

At the very beginning, the organiser divided us into groups according to a series of apparently random categorisations: men who had beards, people who were married but had no children, and so on.

It didn't take long to grasp the point that finding yourself a member of a minority quickly makes you uneasy. Discovering that you are in a minority of minorities, you can't help sensing that you are in danger of being misunderstood or unconsidered. You can see that your developed reaction might be aggression or depression - it would depend on personality.

At the time, the BBC was much mocked in the newspapers for holding such events and for setting targets to raise the proportion of staff from ethnic-minority backgrounds. But the targets helped achieve the BBC's first objective of ensuring that ethnic minorities account for a fair proportion of staff: 8 per cent of the total today, against 7 per cent of the population.

There are several reasons why the BBC must do better, though. For one thing, staff are heavily concentrated in London, where ethnic-minority groups are now nearly 30 per cent of the population. For another, the BBC has the World Service, where ethnic diversity has always been axiomatic.

Greg Dyke's characterisation of the BBC as "hideously white" first boiled up when he looked round his senior management Christmas lunch and saw only one black face. He repeated the remark in a radio interview with BBC Scotland, which, like BBC Wales, has an especially lamentable record in recruiting and promoting black and Asian people. The story is told of a Cardiff news executive who was asked why the newsroom contained so few Asian faces. "Because we're not running an Asian news service," he replied.

It is not only a question of our most important publicly funded cultural organisation being fair to those who pay for it. Broadcasting executives know that if they fail to connect with the lives of black and Asian people through the programmes they show, they will have smaller audiences. There is some evidence that this is starting to happen in multichannel homes, though it is difficult to separate out clearly issues of race and class, which gives Sky and the rest such a strong hold in poorer households.

The important question is why the BBC, an organisation that Greg Dyke correctly states would like to do the right thing on race, has found it so hard to do so.

The reasons are complex. Ethnic identity is not easily or appropriately summed up in the skin-colour terms we use as shorthand. As a white person, I don't identity chiefly, or at all, in terms of pigmentation. The same is true of black people, some of whom are evangelical Christians, some ardent Muslims and some agnostics or atheists. Some Asians are successful small business people. Many are shockingly poor.

But, in the end, management systems require measures of achievement. So Dyke is right to ratchet up the targets for recruitment and promotion - from 8 to 10 per cent of staff and from 2 to 4 per cent of management by 2003.

He should also count other things - like the proportion of characters in soap operas and the evening news. It is rather easy to count presenters: George Alagiah, Moira Stewart, Trevor McDonald, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Zena Badawi, Samira Ahmed and Daljit Dhaliwal tell a broadly convincing story. But numbers take you only so far. And the really big problem is senior management. As with women, this is partly a matter of time and the supply chain of experienced figures, but it is also a matter of culture. It is one thing for a white, Oxbridge-educated liberal-minded BBC manager to make sure that he is increasing the number of ethnic-minority, or female news presenters - that, at the end of the day, is an issue of free management decision, even patronage.

What is much harder is for that same white manager to possess the knowledge, and with it the trust, to select senior management colleagues with backgrounds and qualities quite unlike his own. The recruitment of clones is the persistent and besetting sin of all management recruitment.

This problem is even more acute when it comes to creative decisions: understanding what would make a great storyline for a documentary or a drama in areas that lie entirely outside the cultural experience of the commissioning team is impossible. Make the commissioners more diverse and the output will be more diverse, too.

The people who laughed at the race-awareness seminars in the 1980s, are still laughing. Look at Daily Telegraph the other day, peddling an especially unpleasant line on race, under cover of appearing to defend the police force.

"Imagine", said its editorial, what would have happened had Greg Dyke called the British Olympics team "hideously black". He would have been denounced by the "fashionable, guilt-ridden, self-hating, white western progressive" establishment and found himself "up before a judge answering a charge of incitement to racial hatred".

If the Telegraph can't understand why, in a predominantly white country, there is a categorical difference between deploring the excessive whiteness of the BBC and alleging pro-black racial discrimination in British athletics, its editorialists need to go on a racial-awareness course immediately. Perhaps Greg Dyke has a few places he could offer.

The writer is director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University

This article appears in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again